Sunday, February 2, 2003

Space exploration is too important to be treated as a carnival ride

I withheld comment yesterday on the Columbia disaster because I didn’t want my own opinion of the current space program to impinge on the tragedy of seven lost lives.

This is going to make some people mad, but here goes...

The space program has long attracted the best engineers, pilots and scientists, and has touched the imagination of not just Americans, but much of the world. That said it is largely an expensive boondoggle that has gotten worse since the days of Werner and Marcus von Braun, when we blew untold billions of dollars in order to put a few astronauts on the moon in a publicity battle against the Soviets.

Today, rather than support meaningful space exploration, NASA’s budget is being largely used to build and support a “space station” of little to no scientific value. Manned space travel is expensive and detracts from our goal of understanding our solar system and the cosmos. Far more can be accomplished for far less using unmanned vehicles for which life support systems and manned-flight safety precautions are unnecessary.

There will be a time when sending astronauts to the moon, mars and other extra-terrestrial bodies will make sense from a scientific standpoint, but that time is not yet here, and pouring resources into an ancient fleet of space shuttles and a “space station” discredits the space program and ultimately retards the goal of space exploration.

It’s time to get serious about exploration and not just treat space as an expensive political carnival ride.

UPDATE: Rand Simberg makes an interesting observation:

Gregg Easterbrook says that it's time to end the Shuttle program.

He actually says much with which I agree, but I utterly disagree with his prescription, which is to have NASA build a newer, safer system. He gets it wrong because he continues to fall into the trap of believing that the primary purpose of a space program is for science.

Simberg identifies what I see as the problem, although he obviously does not. The legitimate purpose for using taxpayer money to fund a space program is to advance science. The program needs to become more science and less taxpayer-funded, over-priced carnival ride.

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